How to turn a stale project site into a useful Wiki

Web: Almost every project and organisation has, at some stage, bemoaned having stale data on their website, and wished there was a better way to keep it up to date; or wished their FAQ was more complete; or wished they had the time to HTML-ize all their know-how and get it up there.

Well, here’s what we did in SpamAssassin to deal with this problem. (Seeing as I’ve talked about this three times in the past month, I’ll write it up here so I can just point at the URL next time!)

First off, we experimented with having the site checked into CVS, FAQ-o-matic, and the Python FAQ software (which was pretty good). All were OK, but very specific in format, using the traditional question-answer FAQ layout — that’s good for FAQs, but not so good for a lot of other stuff — and keeping it updated was still limited to a small group, therefore the info got stale again.

So we moved to a Wiki. Here’s my tips for Wiki-izing your website so that the end results are better than what went in.

Use good wiki software: unusable software will be a pain to use, and the info will still go stale. We used Moin Moin – – partly because I like Python (it’s nearly perl! ;), it can produce RSS, and it was pretty easy to install.

Don’t worry: people won’t vandalise it (much). It turns out that vandalism and people throwing up crappy info isn’t a serious problem at all. You should increase the barrier, in the following ways:

Require user accounts: set the security policy so that a user account must be set up before editing is possible. This means you won’t get wiki-spammed, and also has the side effect of imposing a pretty big barrier to casual vandals.

Send changes to a list: set all changes to be mailed to a mailing list as diffs. This is the most important tip. If you already have a mailing list with the knowledgeable part of the community on it, use that list — because they’re the ones who’ll be able to recognise if erroneous info is put up, and will be annoyed about this enough to bother fixing it. There’s a bonus side-effect of this; even if some people didn’t like the wiki to start with, they’ll eventually be needled into using it by wanting to fix stuff they perceive as wrong. And then they get sucked in ;)

Use diff for the mailed changes: Moin by default will only send out change messages saying ‘something changed on this page!’. That’s not good enough, unfortunately — you want to mail out what the new text looks like, and highlight exactly where the change happened. Moin can do this nicely, with this patch, which adds a mail_commits_address, where all diffs on every page are sent, using the normal diff mechanism.

Ensure the wiki software can revert quickly: If someone does make a bad change, Moin supports one-click reversion of the page to what it was beforehand. That’s great for dealing with spam, or clueless vandalism.

Keep one or two static pages: If you’re worried about some script kiddie thinking that defacing a wiki makes them look cool, then keep one or two of the primary user-facing pages as static data. For example, take a look at the link-bar at the top of ; five of the ten links are to static pages, the other five are now wiki-ized. In particular, our front page and our downloads page are both static, but our docs are predominantly Wiki’d.

Publicize Mozex: most techie groups will have techie users, and we hate using browser text-boxes to edit text. Mozex — — saves the day here — it’s a godsend.

Shepherd new changes: in the early stages, you want one or two people who tidy up changes from Wiki newbies, as they go in. They need to keep it looking pretty, and perform Refactoring of stuff that could be laid out better or should become multiple pages. Eventually, others will get the hang of that (and do a much better job than you do ;).

That’s the lot. Most of these are to, essentially, migrate aspects of your already-existing and already-working community into this new outlet. In our experience, it’s worked really well — our Wiki is now the most reliable source of info about SpamAssassin, and is extensive and up-to-date.

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